Friday, January 07, 2011


Boomers ROCKED the culture
The biggest generation in history turned pop music, TV into art forms

When America’s culture historians at the end of the 21st century look back at the influence of 20th century Baby Boomers on entertainment and the arts, two things will stand out: TV and rock ’n’ roll.
This generation of Americans, totaling about 78 million, has certainly influenced other art forms. But when it comes to television and rock music in particular, neither would have emerged, flourished and dominated without the consuming and creative power of those Americans born from 1946 to 1964 — the largest generational cohort in history. (more after the break)

The Boomers and pop culture are synonymous, says Gary West, a consultant from California with two online identities, MrPopHistory and MrPop-Culture, and a self-created mission of tracking and posting online a week-by-week roundup of what happened in pop culture from the 1950s to the present. The Boomers, he says, were the first generation to be raised on TV, to be influenced by TV ads, to have their own record players, transistor radios and so on.
“They basically created what today is pop culture,” says West, 52.
“We still have episodes of Leave It to Beaver playing in our heads — it accounts for our desire to re-create a world that was always imaginary,” says Steven Gillon, resident historian at the History Channel and a professor at the University of Oklahoma. “Our greatest contribution, the thread that ties it all together, is our emphasis on individual expression, breaking down and challenging the old authorities and morals, and rebelling against and redefining our parents’ definition of reality. That contribution will outlive us.”
Depending on your point of view, this is either a worthy legacy or the end of civilization as we know it. (Irony: a cultural attitude the Boomers elevated to an art form.)
Target TV audience gets younger
If Gen Xers and Millennials today are the generations that have grown up with the Internet in their palms, Baby Boomers grew up with the TV box in their living rooms. TV spoke very clearly to Boomers when they were kids, through Howdy Doody to Captain Kangaroo to Mighty Mouse.
“As TV became affordable for lots of families, it celebrated childhood right away — it was kids, kids, kids, long before Sesame Street,” says Ann Clurman, senior partner at Yankelovich consumer research firm, which claims to have coined the term Baby Boomer in the 1960s. She’s the co-author of 2007’s Generation Ageless: How Baby Boomers Are Changing the Way We Live Today . . . And They’re Just Getting Started.
Television’s beginnings as a mass medium overlapped with the beginning of the Boomers, says television historian Tim Brooks, a former TV executive and author of Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows. “In the early years of TV, when its conventions were being formed, it was during that period of the explosion of youth culture and youth economy. Television began to serve youth specifically.”
At first, TV focused more on serving the Boomers’ parents, Brooks says. TV came from New York, a lot of it was live, it was stage-oriented, and the big Westerns such as Gunsmoke and Bonanza were found to appeal more to an older audience, according to what Nielsen found when it first started reporting detailed demographic data in 1960.
“Advertisers wanted to appeal to youth, so there was a great shift in the late ’60s to sitcoms that appealed to (Boomers),” such as Leave It to Beaver, Brooks says. “As the cultural revolution caught up with TV, Boomers really started to have an effect on TV and movies.”
The problem, gripes satirist/Wall Street Journal columnist Joe Queenan, 59, author of the irreverent Balsamic Dreams: A Short But Self-Important History of the Baby Boomer Generation, is that they value quantity over quality. “The Boomers like volume, so what they’ve done is introduced many, many more choices,” he says. “Once you only had three TV stations, and now you have a million, and yet, when you’re trying to find something to watch late at night, it’s still a wasteland.”
Elvis led a ‘national phenomenon’
One of the Boomers’ enduring legacies is rock ’n’ roll. Their parents listened to Perry Como, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, but by 1970, the crooners were nearly wiped off the radio dial by the likes of Elvis, the Beach Boys, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and a stream of rock bands and musicians.
“Boomers were the first audience for rock,” Croker says. “Record turntables allowed us to listen to stuff as many times as we wanted — without waiting for the radio.” Portable transistor radios allowed them to listen wherever they wanted, he adds, without mom and dad yelling, “Turn that down!”
“What the Boomers did that was really ingenious is they didn’t drag things that were up high down, they pushed things that were lower up,” Queenan says. “So they took rock and made it seem like it was on a level with Stravinsky or Beethoven.”
Adults were supposed to outgrow pop music and turn to “high culture” — classical music or jazz, says Queenan. Instead, Boomers replaced high culture with pop culture. “Before Boomers, no one took pop seriously,” Queenan says.
Baby Boomers made rock, Baby Boomers consumed rock, says West, a former DJ. “They’re the ones who bought the records; they’re the ones who still listen to rock in all its forms today. FM radio? Boomers were tired of the screaming DJs, it was anti-establishment, there were no commercials, and it was about album rock. Stadium mega concerts? Boomers started those, too.”
What was it about Elvis, the Beatles, the Stones and all the rest that resonated so strongly and so quickly with Boomers? Try sex, race, rebellion and freedom, says longtime Rolling Stone contributing editor Anthony DeCurtis. He says Boomers rejected most of what their parents liked in music to glom on to what their parents didn’t like about rock.
“Sam Phillips of Sun Records, which produced Elvis’ first recordings, was alleged to have said that ‘if I could find a white man with a black sound, I could make a million dollars.’ That’s not a bad little summary of what Elvis was,” DeCurtis says.
Presley, a sexy, hip-swiveling white Southerner clearly influenced by black musicians and music, appeared on the scene as the civil rights movement was gearing up.
Elvis “provided a fulcrum of possibility,” DeCurtis says. “You have an enormous group of young people in what turned out to be a flush economic time and the technology to reach them — it creates the possibility for a national phenomenon.”
Even if the masses were only dimly aware of what they were buying, their parents knew, which is why they sputtered so much about Elvis in the beginning. “He was the wedge, exactly what the people who hated him believed him to be — he was infecting white teens with black culture,” DeCurtis says. “He was volcanic and enticing.”
The Beatles and later the Rolling Stones presented a different kind of enticement. The Stones especially stood for rebellion and anti-authority, and like Elvis, they owed a lot to African-American music. The Beatles, who arrived in America only months after the assassination of President Kennedy (a life-altering event in the lives of many Baby Boomers), seemed almost to pick up the mantle of Camelot, DeCurtis says.
“The Beatles were young, articulate, witty, smart, fresh,” he says. “They were instantly accessible and as deep as you wanted to go. The idea that (anyone) could be in a band began with them. And there was no build —suddenly, they were huge.”
Their hair, their clothes, their songs might have seemed faddish at first, but they weren’t scary or threatening or belligerently rebellious, even though they didn’t have Elvis’ Southern mannerisms (“Yes, ma’am”; “no, sir”).
“I think of them as the beginning of the cultural ’60s, when suddenly people in their 20s and 30s were growing their hair and wearing Nehru suits and had impact on things beyond music,” DeCurtis says. “Suddenly things like fashion and style began to be determined by young people.”
Taking movies seriously
Being raised on TV ultimately made Boomers even more interested in movies, says Leonard Mal-tin, a film critic and historian.
“(Boomers) were the first to be raised on TV, and one result is that it made us very movie-savvy, because early TV was a living museum of movies,” Maltin says. “We were steeped in not only the great traditions of entertainment, but we got a wonderful education about the movies.”
He cites the filmmaker “poster boys” for the Boomers, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, who drew on the dreams and fantasies fueled by the Hollywood they saw on TV. “They wound up making the kind of films they grew up watching,” Mal-tin says. “They’re fans of the old cartoons and the old, tacky horror films and the sci-fi movies of the ’50s. They recycled and improved and expanded and enlarged them.”
The parents of the Boomers thought of movies as just entertainment, says Queenan. “Boomers talked about them all the time. They took them really seriously,” he says. “The movies were on par with other art forms, like painting and ballet.”
The trauma of the Vietnam War — fought by and opposed by Boomers — cannot be underestimated in its influence on Boomers’ choice of entertainment, especially in literature.
“In books, as in so many other things, the Vietnam War was really a defining moment for the generation, and some of the best books by and for people of this generation are somehow connected to that war,” says Sara Nelson, the books editor for O, The Oprah Magazine and the former editor in chief of Publishers Weekly.
“Also, this was the heyday of narrative nonfiction and journalism, of the kind you’d see in Esquire and Playboy. You can see a direct line from (Truman Capote’s) In Cold Blood (1966) to (Norman Mailer’s) The Executioner’s Song (1980).”
Looking forward, it’s clear that Boomers haven’t “aged out” of their love for movies or TV or rock/ pop music — they’re still happily consuming — and now that they’re middle-aged, they have even more disposable income.
“Boomers insist on mattering,” Clurman says. “Boomers like to be part of the discussion. That’s in Boomer DNA.”
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